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[Movie Review] ‘Arrival’ Stirs Up All the Emotions

arrivalposter_tgofLife is a beautiful thing. It’s complex, subjectively fulfilling and in various ways, sad. Denis Villeneuve excels in conveying humanity and emotion in the most beautiful and hideous ways. Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario are incredible examples of just how dark the filmmaker views the human condition so it’s only right that with Arrival he introduces extraterrestrials to have a heady and heart-wrenching talk with us humans.

Arrival is high end science fiction. A thinking person’s genre flick. Villeneuve drops a handful of alien spacecrafts into our world and a less discerning movie-goer salivates while waiting for the eye-popping VFX and ariel dogfights. However, when your main character, Louise (Amy Adams), being a linguist and her side kick, Ian (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, sent to decrypt and analyze alien language to engage in deep conversation there just isn’t room for devastating city-wide explosions and laser beams.  (more…)

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Movie Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

bvsdoj_tgofThere are those of us who willingly choose to avoid the paper representations of the immensely popular superhero films. In doing so, while unable to provide a glimpse into how faithful the adaptations are, can still provide a unique and still truthful outlook to the success of the filmmakers to present a story that is worthwhile and thrilling. Sadly, it’s filmmakers like Zack Snyder who make us realize how good we had it with Christopher Nolan and his uneven take on the cowled vigilante in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan, provided a grim perspective on the Batman universe and Snyder too uses the grim approach, it also is more often than not…soulless.

For better or worse I approach each superhero flick hoping to experience a well told story. With any luck it’ll come together cohesively even without having read the comics. One should not have to have that knowledge to enjoy the film counterparts because it is the job of the filmmaker to present the story in a way that makes sense in its own right. Snyder has not done his due diligence in this regard- at least from this viewer’s perspective. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice certainly sets the table for DC’s own Avengers type formula, but does so in messy fashion. Consider Synder’s vision the Island of Misfit toys so to speak, which goes a long way in describing the film as a whole. It’s like a child playing with his toys and like a child they’re no sense or meaning to anything that happens, just the bashing together of plastic soulless figures because it’s fun. Plus this particular child has a $250 million budget so those plastic toys look a lot cooler.  (more…)

Mini Reviews: The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Rush and More

thewolfofwallstreet_posterThe Wolf of Wall Street – Poor Leo- he tries and he tries to put in stellar work and never gets his hands on that gold statue. I don’t know at this point if THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is going to put an end to that drought, but man does he lose himself here- and boy is it a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Awkward at times, but a hell of a good time was had watching the hurricane of F-bombs, awkward sexuality and utter debauchery on display here. I just wish it wasn’t so damn long.

DiCaprio headlines as Jordan Belfort in a true life story of a stock broker that works his way from the bottom to the top of his craft only to find himself at the mercy of the federal government. That’s really all one needs to know about the story here- it’s all the other stuff that DiCaprio and his merry bunch of miscreants do with wealth that should be spoken of. For instance, how many times do you see a discussion of throwing a little person at a target and all the scenarios of how this will be pull off. Or close ups of a highly acclaimed actor get a candle stuck up his own rear end. That’s only the tip of the iceberg in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

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Movie Review: Man Of Steel (2013)

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Like some, I was not overjoyed with Zack Snyder being announced as the director for a new Superman movie. It wasn’t because I don’t like him on some personal level or that he’s really a bad director- it was mostly because I absolutely hated SUCKER PUNCH. More than that, I was starting to get really tired of the same ol’ style he’d been using in all his movies like 300, WATCHMEN and of course SUCKER PUNCH. Sure the movies look pretty enough, but substance was beginning to take a backseat if it was there at all. With MAN OF STEEL Snyder takes a huge step in the right direction, even if in my opinion you can feel Christopher Nolan’s influence around every turn.

I don’t want to discredit Snyder altogether because it really is his movie and you can see his eye for action and visuals vividly in the action, but the dramatic chops and more cathartic moments are drenched in Nolanisms- not to mention how thankful I am for zero slow motion action scenes. Quite the contrary, the action is so chaotic and fast paced that it’s hard to not feel thrilled during the epic fight scenes.

An origin story in every way, MAN OF STEEL perfectly lays out the story of the fall of Krypton and how Kal-El ends up on Earth. It uses flashbacks to tell the growing pains of a boy that has no idea what he is or where he came from and grappling with the consequences of wanting to help people, but afraid of being looked at as a freak. It’s not until Earth is threatened by the shunned General Zod (Michael Shannon) that Clark Kent/Kal-El (Henry Cavill) must learn his true purpose and save Earth from his former planet’s dangerous forces.

There’s always been something about Superman as a superhero that I wasn’t in love with. With Nolan attached to the project I wondered if the goofiness I expected would be replaced with a dark tone, something I also didn’t think would work. Snyder however manages to mix the two because MAN OF STEEL has both the introspective drama that Nolan employed with Batman- albeit far more subdued- and the dumb fun ridiculous action that I really wanted to see from a superhero capable of almost anything.

If Snyder has proved anything over the years its that he has an incredible visual eye and if you enjoy nothing else from MAN OF STEEL one thing cannot be denied- it is a beautiful movie. The scenery is breathtaking at times, but the special effects are spectacular and while some of the fights have a cartoonish look to them, it’s a small price to pay when you take into consideration the superhuman feats these people are carrying out to kill one another. I have nitpicks when it comes to some logic choices during these massive action sequences, but nothing that makes the movie a total failure by any means.

Emotionally, MAN OF STEEL is always on the edge of really crossing into something fantastic, especially when it comes to a superhero movie, but it never quite gets to the next level. In some ways, it might be better that way given how all over the place it might seem if the tone is constantly shifting from cathartic drama to goofy fun action. Cavill in my opinion dances the line of charismatic superhero and dramatic lead, but never leaning to heavily toward either side. When it comes to the whole Clark Kent/Superman personas I think the casting of Cavill works because he’s got the physicality of a superhero and for the most part he has the chops to pull off what I was worried would be awfully cheesy dialogue. Shannon on the otherhand I would argue doesn’t quite hit the quality of performance I’ve come to expect from him. Moments of his turn as the villain General Zoe are great, but never as crazy as I would have liked to see.

When it comes to an origin film we become accustomed to getting less action and more set up, but MAN OF STEEL turns that on its head with some pretty incredible action sequences, but with plenty of time to round out the origins of a character that most might be familiar with, but it also works for newly initiated fans as well. It would however be easy for some to feel that when the film explodes into nothing but massive explosions and citywide destruction the film it feels empty and loses sight of its more introspective side. To an extent I’d agree, but Snyder finds a way to make it work for me without ever feeling like it was nothing more than a brainless popcorn movie. The action does tend to be big and dumb, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t fun enough for me to take it into context with the rest of the film.

For me, with Snyder to have the watchful eye and mind of Christopher Nolan he bounces back from the abysmal SUCKER PUNCH with a film that’s exponentially bigger and stronger with an actual heart in center of it. To each their own about how effective the drama lands given the big expensive special effects that fill the screen in the final acts of the film. MAN OF STEEL is a blockbuster action flick that aims to please as many people as it can, but ultimately settles on a main entree of big budget action with a side of decent character drama. To borrow from Nolan’s Batman franchise, MAN OF STEEL may not be the Superman movie we needed, but in my opinion it’s the one we deserve.

Rating: B+

Movie Review: Trouble With The Curve (2012)

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Do you remember the old baseball scout that Brad Pitt fires in MONEYBALL? You know the one that resented the type of scouting that was being forced upon them that year in the Oakland Athletics organization. The scouting relied almost entirely on computer analytics that would give you ideal statistics that would essentially help someone put a team together at a considerable discount. By doing so it took an element out of the game that the old fashioned scouting system sees that computers can’t- the human element. I know how hokey and dumb that might sound, but TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE is a film that the fired scout in MONEYBALL would have fit seamlessly into and he wouldn’t even be the oldest or crankiest scout in the film.

Clint Eastwood stars as the aging and incredibly bitter baseball scout, Gus. He is tasked timidly with scouting an up and coming player in North Carolina as the Atlanta Braves first round draft pick, but is not forthcoming about the possibility that in his old age his eyes may be running into a serious issue. Gus’ daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), who longs desperately to connect with her father tags along after his health issues are brought to her attention. The two have a rocky past that Gus refuses to acknowledge around her while Mickey becomes increasingly disappointed by her father’s inability to talk to her about anything but baseball. Along the way a former baseball phenom turned starry eyed scout, Johnny (Justin Timberlake), has his eyes set on becoming a baseball broadcaster and sweeping Mickey off her feet.

There’s no doubt that TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE displays a love for my all time favorite sport or that at the center of the film there’s a great hear. In fact, I would say there’s no doubt that this is a wonderful movie overall, I just didn’t fall head over heels for it. The filmmakers here do little to disguise what they intend on doing with the narrative which in the end the emotional impact while cute, falls just short of a homerun.

I was surprised by how funny I found the film to be and the entire cast has a hand in on the jokes. Amy Adams is always adorable and if that was her only charm that’d be one thing, but she’s a great dramatic actress and she has a few moments here to show off. At this stage in Eastwood’s career his face does a majority of the acting while his typical cranky old man dialogue speaks for itself and is consistently funny here. The missteps in terms of the script are the cheesier moments of Timberlake’s initial introduction and moments involving some of the kids on the baseball team the scouts are following. There are some chuckle worthy lines with the kids, but overall whenever they became the focus of the scene the film felt unnecessarily goofy.

The baseball stuff on display on TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE is suited for those who found MONEYBALL way too boring or too involved. The best way to describe the film as well as its baseball treatment is old fashioned- none too concerned with all the bells and whistles that come along with advancing technology. The comedy and the storytelling is extremely straightforward and simple which brings us back to the issue of the film ultimately being predictable- not that it had aspirations of tricking any one person in the audience to begin with.

As a lover of America’s favorite past-time I am drawn to the films that bring the sport to the big screen and immerse me as an audience member to the life and times on the diamond. TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE is a genuine and personal approach to the love of the game and its ability to bring people together while also injecting a healthy dose of baseball and non baseball related humor into the mix. You may not be able to feel the fresh air or smell the fresh cut grass of the field, but TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE is a crowd pleasing film with great performances and an obvious appreciation for the game of baseball. In the end I wasn’t shirtless screaming belligerently from the stands, but enjoyed myself enough to at least root enthusiastically for a cranky Eastwood victory delivered by Robert Lorenz.

Rating: B+

Movie Review: The Muppets (2011)

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I remember sitting in the theater watching FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL when at the end Jason Segal orchestrates a large Muppet-esque play and thinking that I would really love to see a new MUPPETS movie. Low and behold 2011 has made that wish come true with none other than Jason Segal instrumental to the process. Over the years there’s been some blatant nostalgia exploitation in movies like ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS and THE SMURFS but I’m happy to finally get a property from my past brought back to the big screen with loads of heart and love given to the characters.

The film begins with brothers Walter and Gary (Jason Segal); one of them is a Muppet, Walter and the other is not, Gary. Growing up Walter is increasingly disheartened by his lack of growth and one day he discovers The Muppet Show and it changes his life. Walter begins idolizing the Muppets all the way into adulthood. Now grown up, Walter and Gary still live together but Gary is in a long term relationship with Mary (Amy Adams) and are going on vacation for their anniversary and invite Walter along to visit the Muppet Studios. Once there the place is a dump and in process of being purchased by an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper) who plans to tear it down to access the oil underneath. Gary and Walter go in search of Kermit to convince him to bring back the gang for a show to raise the $10 million they need to save the studio.

I love THE MUPPETS- but to be perfectly honest, as much as I would love to say this is a flawless movie that simply isn’t the case. The film plays highly on the nostalgia of fans and while it is kid friendly, it just doesn’t seem to play entirely towards anyone who isn’t already familiar. These are characters that have already been introduced over the years and there are many scenes dedicated to fans already knowing the dynamic between them and the quirks that come with them.

Getting the flaws out of the way- as much as I like Walter’s story at times especially at the beginning, his character seems a bit flat other times. There are a few of the musical numbers I could have done without, but the opening number as well as the “Man or Muppet” song that I loved quite a bit. Lastly one of the last of my main problems is that the film is a little long and given some of the things I could have done without, trimming them down a bit would have done the film a lot of good.

I found myself chuckling and smiling all the way throughout the movie though despite my reservations. Also, my absolute joy to what I was watching was not shared by everyone around me that did not have the connection and love for the Muppets that I remember having. Hence the disconnect I feel is present for audiences- I believe it is possible to enjoy for some of the goofy jokes and gags and the heartwarming message but not as much for the connection to the characters and the property itself. If you were never a fan this probably won’t change your mind and younger children may become a little bored and uninterested that these are not culturally stereotypical animated cars. The Muppets themselves are as they are depicted in the film, which is mostly forgotten by the masses and kids have no basis really for who they are and probably look at their spot in the DVD shelf with indifference.

Almost every joke, reference and gag had me laughing or chuckling and I couldn’t have been happier to see these characters on the big screen again. I fell in love with the film the moment Kermit began rounding up his friends and interacted with Fozzie, Animal and Gonzo- three of my absolute favorites. The scene where they picked up Animal had me laughing out loud just as the gag about him struggling to maintain “control” over his drumming.

I cared so much more about the actual Muppet half of the movie that at times I felt like the Jason Segal/Amy Adams storyline was interfering. This is not to say I didn’t like it on some level, but in my opinion it was so secondary for me I could have done without it and been just as happy. However, without that storyline two of the musical numbers I liked wouldn’t have worked as well.

Chris Cooper is great as the evil oil baron that’s constantly instructing his two Muppet goons to laugh maniacally. There are a variety of celebrity cameos that induce a short laugh here and there- but I really wish Neil Patrick Harris had a more expanded role as opposed to Jack Black. At times it becomes a bit of a Where’s Waldo of celebrity faces but some of them add to the film humorously so it’s not much of a complaint.

From beginning to end THE MUPPETS warmed my heart and made me smile more than most movies have this year. It may not be the funniest movie I’ve seen this year, but it has one of the biggest hearts of just about any other movie released. The film is not perfect by any means, but for Muppet fans I can’t imagine a more glorious reintroduction of the property. When that iconic Muppet theme kicks in during the show the goosebumps really set in but by that point I was already in love with the film. No other family film this year can integrate Cee Lo Green’s “F*ck You” and remain as endearing as it is. THE MUPPETS may not be the right type of family movie that unites young and old in the same way, but from this fan’s perspective it fits in just fine.

Movie Review: The Fighter (2010)

I really enjoy a good sports movie; I am impartial to baseball as it is my favorite of all professional and collegiate sports. MAJOR LEAGUE has always been one of my favorites since childhood, but I also enjoy the occasional football experience and other sports movies including ROCKY, which is a film that THE FIGHTER shares a lot in common with. Within the structure of the sports film conventions THE FIGHTER is well over half drama with the actual fights being secondary and a dash of comedy sprinkled in here and there. There isn’t a weak performance to be had and by the end I was fully invested and cheering right along with the crowds.

Up and coming boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) trains with his brother Dicky (Christian Bale) and is managed by his mother Alice (Melissa Leo). His career is at a turning point as he is matched up with a fighter well out of his weight class and is humiliated by how one sided the fight is. He begins a relationship with a bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams), who stands behind him when Dicky is arrested and he makes a decision to move on with new training and management, which causes a strain in Micky’s relationships with his family.

THE FIGHTER was a film that really did not impress me for the first half hour or so. I didn’t think it was a bad movie there just wasn’t a lot connecting me with the characters. As you coast into the middle of the movie the drama within the relationships and the strength of the performances began to sneak into my head and things just started clicking from there. The family drama, the tension certain characters and the excitement of the boxing scenes really snuck up on me.

It’s the performances that carry the film and lead primarily by Christian Bale, who is as good as he’s ever been. His presence is truly captivating every moment he is on the screen. Melissa Leo and Amy Adams are both outstanding as well, the scales tip a bit more towards Leo but the two are very near equal with their contributions for me. Mark Wahlberg, while the lead, is very much set on the sidelines as far as screen presence when Melissa Leo and Christian Bale are both on screen. His character however, feels written like he’s basically the focus but constantly shoved aside while everyone else tries to make things about themselves. Full disclosure, I was not well versed in the true story that THE FIGHTER is based on, but everything in this film despite some of the goofier comic relief feels, looks and sounds real. My enjoyment continued to build and peaked at the end which I feel was more exciting for me since I didn’t really know how it was going to end, despite the story being something of public knowledge.

Most of the actual boxing scenes are very brief, which is why this film is more of a family drama than full out sports film. As the film rolls towards the end the boxing scenes get a little longer and much more enjoyable. My favorite fight and scene was when Dicky is getting updates about one of Micky’s fights over the phone, I love the progression of that specific scene and the culmination of which had completely sold me on the film.

THE FIGHTER is a film full of knockout performances and an abundance of heart to go around. Christian Bale commands and steals every single scene he’s in with Melissa Leo coming in at a strong but distant second. There are a couple of really great fight scenes while the rest leave a little something to be desired. Overall, it’s a film that really has to grow on you as you watch it before you will fall in love with it, but if you stick with it the film really does pay off in the end.